Lionsgate // 2009 // 90 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // July 17th, 2009
Four victims. Four painful secrets.
"What's the difference between death and war?"
On a seemingly ordinary wintry day, an old man is walking through the woods. He sees something mysterious: a shiny covered dish. The man approaches the covered dish, removes the lid, and discovers a freshly-removed set of bloody teeth. It just so happens that Police Detective Aidan Breslin (Dennis Quaid, American Dreamz) specializes in tooth-related criminal investigations. Breslin is a widowed father of two boys, and he knows that his work has been keeping him from spending enough time with his children. Even so, this case is an important one, so he begins his investigation. Breslin quickly realizes that the teeth were merely a clue to the true nature of the mystery. It seems that a group of people have taken inspiration from the biblical Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, and they are committing thematically appropriate murders. Can the killers be caught before their murderous plans are completed? Who are the four horsemen? If Breslin does what it takes to solve the mystery, will the remaining shreds of his family life crumble in the meantime?
I have to confess, I was quite nervous when I saw the words, "Produced by Michael Bay" float across the screen during the opening credits. Sure, he wasn't actually directing, but just about every horror film Bay has touched has been a disaster. Most of them have been remakes: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Friday the 13th, The Hitcher, The Amityville Horror...oh, and he's currently working on A Nightmare on Elm Street. Agh. My hopes that Horsemen would be watchable started spinning down the drain. But then something happened. I started to become intrigued by what was taking place, and before long I was what you might call "absorbed." Weird. By the time Horsemen had concluded, I had seen a film that ultimately disappointed me but which had also never bored me.
The irritating stylistic excesses that have defined the other Bay-produced horror efforts are admirably reined in here by music video director Jonas Akerlund, who mostly manages to bring a steady sense of calm to the proceedings. There are jittery shots and twitches here and there that give the viewer the sense that a considerably less restrained film is being valiantly pinned down. Sure, when moments appropriate for chaos finally arrive, they let loose with the expected fireworks (perhaps most notably a torture scene that combines elements of Saw with A Clockwork Orange). Still, Horsemen deserves at least some recognition for the restraint it shows in telling this story.
The performance of Dennis Quaid defines the tone of the proceedings. Quaid's movie roles may be getting spottier lately, but he is definitely aging quite well as an actor. In Horsemen he brings a weary, noirish quality to his role. Here is a man who is tired, broken, hurting, and cynical. Every time he has to choose between his job and his family, the decision is a painful one. Despite this, he makes the exact same decision every single time. There are cases that need to be solved, there are people who are in danger, and somebody has to do something about it. Quaid lights up a cigarette, tosses on his overcoat and shuffles off once more into the cold, murderous world. It's good stuff, and Quaid is thoroughly convincing every step of the way. He carries the film through a handful of rather ludicrous moments, keeping everything very grounded at all times.
The transfer is satisfactory if less than remarkable. I wasn't a big fan of the way the natural muted tones contrasted with the more conventional horror-flick greens and reds, but the image is reasonably clear and crisp. Blacks are moderately deep and the level of detail is stellar. Audio is similarly stellar without quite being exceptional. Jan A.P. Kaczmarek's score veers between standard horror jolts and surprisingly elegant thematic material. It blends nicely with the dialogue and sound design. Extras include a slightly dull commentary with the director and cinematographer in addition to a handful of deleted scenes.
I mentioned that I was engaged the entire time I was watching the film. So I was. Unfortunately, Horsemen turns rotten once the film has concluded and is subjected to some very basic mental dissection. Without wanting to delve into spoiler territory, let me say that there are quite a few elements here that make no sense whatsoever. We find out who did what, but we don't always know how or why. Perhaps merciless editing was to blame. Apparently, the original running time of the film was some 20 minutes longer than the version appearing on DVD (not to mention the fact that Horsemen went through some significant re-shoots). Perhaps something was lost in translation; but it seems that everyone involved knew this thing was a mess. The 20 million dollar film appeared oh-so-briefly in theaters as a limited release, scooped up about 1 million and shuffled off to DVD.
Forgetting about the things that don't make sense, there are plenty of elements that I just don't like. My biggest problem is the "message" of the movie, which is employed in the same sort of violently sanctimonious manner in which the Saw franchise delivers its "life lessons." Action A may well be a motivating factor for Action B, but the horrific nature of Action B should not be forgiven simply because the person carrying out Action B was subjected to Action A. The mastermind behind the plans is murdering others due to a personal problem that many of us have faced. To be sure, it is not an easy thing to deal with. But you know what? If you decide you need to gut innocent people just to express your pain, I have no sympathy for you. Various factors of life may make things more or less difficult, but ultimately each person is responsible for his or her own actions. The film does what it can to jerk tears from the audience during the final moments, but I felt nothing for the guilty party. At the conclusion, the killer gives someone a speech full of guilt-inducing lines like, "If only you had done this, none of this would have happened." I dunno. Maybe if you had been able to keep your murderous impulses in check despite your hurt feelings, none of this would have happened, pal.
Finally, I should note that Ziyi Zhang gives a surprisingly terrible performance as one of the four horsemen (this isn't a spoiler, since she is captured early in the film and subjected to prison interrogations throughout the proceedings). Imagine the performance of Leelee Sobeiski at the end of 88 Minutes and stretch it out across an entire film, and that's pretty much what you get from Zhang here. Yeah. Ouch.
Horsemen is an intriguing mess. I can't recommend it, but horror junkies could certainly do a whole lot worse than this surprisingly watchable flick.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 90 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Deleted Scenes